There are a lot of reasons why the Rays have lost games recently, but the biggest one is that they have three starting pitchers injured right now and one minor league pitching prospect suspended. That's meant a lot of runs given up, few innings pitched by starters, and a bullpen that's overworked and not put in the positions in which they're most likely to succeed. Those are the reasons the Rays have been losing. None of those apply to today.
Erik Bedard gave the Rays everything they needed from a fifth starter. He worked five innings of one-run baseball. He wasn't especially dominant or efficient (three walks, four hits, and four strikeouts), but he mostly attacked the zone and made big pitches when he needed to. He worked his fastball all across the underside of the zone, and threw his curve frontdoor, backdoor, and back-foot. He struck out David Ortiz twice. Then, he turned a tie game over to the bullpen.
There is some debate within the Rays community about what Brandon Gomes's is and what he can be. Everyone agrees, though, that he can get out right-handed batters. With the bottom of the sixth inning, Maddon found the perfect time to use Gomes. Due up: Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Xander Bogaerts. Brandon Gomes walked both of the first two batters he faced -- and got himself into a 3-1 count against the third -- by consistently missing away (especially with his cutter), and down (with all of his pitches). Ryan Hanigan was demonstrative as he asked for the ball up and in the zone, and while Gomes hit his mitt a few times, he missed too often to be effective. He was bailed out by a Bogaerts popup in a full count.
With the lefty-hitting A.J. Pierzynski due up, Joe Maddon pulled Brandon Gomes in favor of Juan Carlos Oviedo and his excellent changeup. Oviedo, too, had some trouble locating, but even more damagingly, he had trouble missing bats. Pierzynski was all over what looked like a decent changeup down and away, lining it hard up the middle. Will Middlebrooks grabbed hold of a belt-high fastball on the inner half of the plate and bounced it off the monster. Jackie Bradley Jr. took a changeup over the heart of the plate straight back into center field and over Desmond Jennings's head. Shane Victorino also doubled, although his was a cheap ground-rule double when a flare off the end of his bat bounced over the low wall in short right-field and into the stands (Fenway is a ridiculous ballpark). We shouldn't conclude that Oviedo is easy to hit against based on this one appearance, but the Red Sox sure had an easy time hitting against him tonight.
John Lackey was good. He located his fastball well, pounding the zone, and occasionally humping it up to 95 mph. He's come a long way from the much maligned version of himself that first came to Boston. He worked in his two different breaking balls, along with his changeup, and he kept the Rays hitters off guard the entire game. For the Rays to remain in contention, the offense will need to do more than they did tonight, but when their opponent pitches like that, they often won't. That's not fun, but it is reality.
The Future for Bedard
I want to point out that while Bedard was by and large good, he wasn't perfect. While he did a good job not missing off the plate and glove-side like he did in Minnesota, a number of fastballs got away from him high and armside (something that has plagued him in all of his previous starts). And he had real trouble bringing his back-foot curve to right-handed hitters high enough in the zone to make it tempting. I don't think he was able to settle that pitch in the right spot until the fourth inning at bat to Xander Bogaerts with two men on, and as far as I'm concerned, finding that location was what got him out of that jam.
We know that Bedard can do a lot worse, but he can also do better than this with the tools he has. He's just not especially likely to do so on any given day, but hopefully this start gives Bedard something to build on.
Some other notes:
- It can get lost in a game like this, but Ryan Hanigan really had an exceptional pitch-blocking performance. The Rays pitchers were all over the place, and it was ridiculous that they only ended up charged with one passed ball. There was one yanked fastball by Oviedo that he basically dove for, and plenty of curves in the dirt that could have gotten away from a lesser defensive catcher. Beyond that, he tracks and backhands pitches beautifully. Even when the pitcher misses his spot, he seems to get his glove where it needs to be unnaturally quickly.
- According to the broadcast, Josh Lueke has been in more games than any other Rays pitcher.
- Joel Peralta hadn't pitched in four games, so he came in to handle the eighth. He also gave up a run. Only Lueke didn't give up a run.
- The Rays made it slightly interesting in the ninth inning when the scored two runs off a James Loney double and a Wil Myers walk, followed by a throwing error from Bogaerts. That was enough to bring Koji Uehara into the game, and he promptly struck out Ben Zobrist swinging on three straight fastballs, two of them right in the middle of the zone. I often hear announcers remark on how amazing it is that Uehara can blow his 88 mph heater past good major league hitters. I rarely hear them give the right reason why so I write it over and over. It's not a mystery. Uehara's fastball has some of the most extreme rising action of any pitch in baseball. That's why Zobrist swung under it three times. It's unusual, and when you only see him once, it's tough to adjust.